Corruption (20-11-2009)

Moral pressure on the government to curb rampant corruption and improve the governance is rising every day. While the army and other law enforcing agencies are doing their duty to combat terrorism in the country, the media and civil society is raising the heat on corruption issues.

First they forced the government to pull back the NRO from the parliament, and then came the German-based NGO Transparency International report. And come November 28 the Pandora box of all corruption cases would be opened. The courts will start tightening the rope around the corrupt. Those who claim that they were politically victimised, which is true to some extent, will have to prove it to the courts that the cases were cooked up.

Beleaguered government was quick to respond after the TI report said that the level of corruption is rising in the country. The Prime Minister quickly appointed a committee under the Finance Minister. I wonder how Shaukat Tarin, who is extremely busy in managing the dwindling economy, is going to take out time to come up with something substantial to curb corruption in the country. The technocrat finance minister would also be stone-walled by the politicians and civil-military bureaucracy who have more clout than him. In most developing countries level of corruption has a co-relation with the stage of economic, political and sociological development. Institutional development and evolution of democratic structure has inherent capability to check the growth of corruption.

TI is not the only one which has rated Pakistan as the 42nd most corrupt country in the world. According to a World Bank survey which covers 100,000 companies from 179 countries: 27% respondents from Pakistan say that they expect to pay informal payment to public officials to get things done; 13% say that they give gifts to get an operating license; 59% pay bribes to tax officials; 30% pay illegal gratifications for getting a contract; and 59% said that corruption is the major constraint in doing business. Freedom House publishes a corruption index too.

First let’s briefly define ‘Corruption’ as it is perceived today by the economists and political analysts. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Politics: “Corruption obtains when an official transfers a benefit to an individual who may or may not be entitled to the benefit, in exchange for an illegal payment (the bribe). By taking the bribe, the official breaks a legal binding promise he gave to his ‘principal …” It further says “ A positive relation appears to exist between the extent of bribery and the ‘level of red tape….”

Two social scientists Donatella Della Porta and Yves Meny in their excellent book ‘Democracy and Corruption in Europe’ have said: “Corruption can be initially defined as clandestine exchange between two markets; the political and/or administrative ‘market’ and the economic and social market.”

Corruption perhaps has been the oldest evil that has existed in the human society. The issue has come under the spotlight after the end of the cold war. Before that the capitalist democracies were only critical of corruption in the socialist countries and would cover up their own follies. But once the fear that people might get attracted to an alternate socialist politico-economic system fell with the Berlin war that the western democracies became introspective about the ills within.

Corruption in developing and developed countries is not only an exclusive domain of the politicians and the government officials. Multi-billion corruption scandals in the West have brought on the worst recession. In Pakistan the media industry is also well aware of the corrupt practices of their owners, advertising agencies and even multinational brand managers. The irony is that the same people sermon ad-nauseam about politicians’ and government officials’ corruption. Forgetting, that only the pious who have not sinned can cast the first stone.

Public interest in the developing countries like Pakistan has surged as the democratic institutions started functioning and the economic structure is being deregulated giving more space to the private sector. This transition has led to the collision between the market players and a new social class of politicians who are seen by the people acquiring wealth rapidly. The arrogance of this new class of politicians is irritating to the middle class of the country. When the government officials and corrupt politicians react to the voices raised against corruption they miss the point. They fail to recognise that with the democratic evolution ‘new social forces’ have “risen which previously lacked social muscle to stand up.” These emerging social forces are led by the middle class journalists and backed by the rejuvenated judiciary. What is happening in Pakistan on this issue is not that far behind than when the media and judiciary started going after corruption issues in the developed countries like Italy, Spain, UK and France in the late eighties and this struggle continues even today.

We should analyse who are the major actors in this ‘corruption drama’ at the national level and what gives them chance to gather this rent from the society. What is the level of the financial loss to the country because of corruption is difficult to say. The figures floating in the media at present are not backed by any in-depth economic study. I think a bigger loss to the economy is committed by the delayed decisions on important development and commercial issues. Bitter sugar fiasco is one such example.

Leaving aside the corruption at the lower level for the time being let’s discuss where each deal runs into million and billions. The major actors in Pakistan are the same culprits who scream from the pulpit that corruption is rampant – politicians, civil & military bureaucracy and the business tycoons. The latter is the biggest beneficiary of this system. As one businessman confessed the other day after giving me a lecture on rising corruption that if a business house pays Rs10 million in bribes, the gain acquired is at least ten times of this amount.

Much of the corruption that irritates the common man is when they have to pay bribe to get the legal work done at the lower level. This American functionalist say is for ‘lubricating the machinery that was jammed’ in the developing countries. They also appropriately named it as ‘wheels’ as opposed to ‘bribe’ because the person who lubricates these ‘wheels’ is just getting the file moved cutting the bureaucratic red tape. The problem is that little has been done to cut the discretionary powers of the officials, which are flagrantly exploited by them in exchange of illegal gratifications.

In Pakistan at present however the corruption of the politicians is in focus much more than the lower level corruption which is irritating the common man. A seasoned professional manager had told me once that “when we vote for one candidate who has spent Rs20 million or more on his election campaign, we also stamp approval that he can recover his investment with interest.” Those of us who have the opportunity as journalists to visit the MNAs/MPAs home or offices in the morning have seen a number of people sitting in the waiting room with applications. I have done this exercise a few times and have seen that almost 80% people who have lined up from their constituency are asking for illegal favour. For example they pester for the appointment of their graduate son, who has passed in ‘D’ grade, as an official. Little do they care that they are actually trying to skip the recruiting system where they don’t have any chance. These people do not suffer from middle class morality issues that corruption and nepotism are immoral.

In all quasi-feudal and nascent capitalist societies the majority of politicians ‘live by politics’ looking for advantages; very few ‘live for politics’ that ‘is intrinsic or ideological satisfaction.” The system would take time to evolve we have to be patient and keep playing the role of a watchdog. But not of the wolf that devours the democratic system. As Churchill said it is “the worst of political system, except for all other.” Or as philosopher Noberto Bobbio once said it is “a better system than those that have preceded and succeeded.” Let’s be careful that once again we do not beat the corruption drum so loud that the sound of marching long-boots is missed by the nation. Remember the damage long-boots do is much larger and is writ with blood every day in the country and ‘having writ moves on’. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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